The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 14 June 2010

Open Saudi skies for Israel (?)

The enemy of my enemy is my friend... and his bombers shall have open skies to attack my enemy's nuclear facilities.

The Times reports that Saudi Arabia has been conducting tests to stand down its air defences and allow Israeli bombers through unharmed. Granting Israeli jets free passage through a narrow corridor of northern Saudi airspace would considerably reduce the distance of the bombing run.

The Kingdom has officially denied this claim, calling it "slanderous and false" and reiterating its "position of opposition and rejection of the violation of its sovereignty and the use of its airspace or territory by anyone to attack any country".

According to The Times, the four main targets are said to be the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, the gas storage development at Isfahan and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. These targets lie up to 2,250km from Israel, which is the outer limit of their bombers’ range, even with aerial refuelling. An air strike would involve multiple waves of bombers, presumably crossing Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia and Iraq - which would require at least tacit approval from Washington for the strike.

The article quotes a US defence source who claims that the understanding between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been done with the agreement of the US State Department.

An interesting aspect of this issue is the regional dimension - the article refers to a claim by 'Israeli intelligence sources' that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are just as concerned (to put it mildly) as Israel and the west over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

If this story is true - and we should not consider it a foregone conclusion - then it raises many questions. Is a strike on Iran a question of when not if? Is the ongoing diplomatic effort genuinely intended to bring about a peaceful resolution to the issue or is it merely a smokescreen intended to convince the world that a military solution is the only solution? If the diplomatic effort is genuine then at what point do we decide that it is not working and an air strike is the only solution?

Also, to what extent is Israel doing this at its own behest or as a US (and Saudi) proxy? What would be the repercussions of using Israel as a blunt instrument, diplomatically or otherwise?


  1. What is also interesting here is the Turkey issue. Ankara is very concerned about a nuclear armed Iran and view Tehran as one of their main competitors for regional influence.

    Note here the recent fuel swap deal that Brazil and Turkey agreed with Iran but the U.S. and its allies rejected. It's going to be interesting to see what Turkey's reaction could be down the line if Iran does carry out a unilateral air strike. They will probably condemn Israel publicly but quietly give a sigh of relief. There are suggestions that a nuclear Iran could spark a proliferation cascade in the region and one of the most interesting cases is Ankara - it's unclear what their response would be, it seems like Turkey doesn't really know itself.

  2. You raise an interesting point Tom.

    The Times article refers to Operation Orchard, when Israeli planes bombed an alleged nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007, crossing Turkish airspace to do so. In fact, the article refers to the strike as a "dry run" for a strike on Iran.

    That remains to be seen but the Turkish reaction to that raid was along the lines you describe: public condemnation but private/tacit approval.

  3. Not sure about tacit approval, since the Turks apparently deployed an air defense System to the Turkish-Syrian border to "defend Syria, Iran against Israel Raids".

    Since Turkey extends his nuclear programme (, the support for Iran is in Turkeys interest. Both countries seek to diversify their energy sources. A cooperation and mutual support simply makes sense.

    Apart from that I never really get the argument that countries fight each other to become the "regional power". Either you are a regional power or not. It is not for you to decide. Realities on the ground determine your status. And why do we always assume that the people in the Middle East strive to become regional powers in the first place? Is that really a valid policy goal for governments? Do we in Europe also fight to become regional powers?

    I guess that governments fight over more substantial issues, such as territories, money, power etc. I don't see a lofty goal such as being a "regional power" being one of them.

  4. Frederik,

    I don't follow your thinking here. Of course, realities on the ground reflect a nation's status but surely a major aspect of international relations is nations striving to change/adapt/exploit those realities in whatever way suits them best?

    We in Europe did fight to become regional powers - we tore ourselves apart in doing so, lost the power we had on a global scale and have since realised that there is a better (albeit imperfect) way of doing things, at least in our own nieghbourhood. I suspect people elsewhere would also like to do things differently but external factors may limit their options.

    Of course a nation or a government will fight others over substantive issues like territory or natural resources but what are these if not means to an end?

    In that sense, I think being a regional power is very definitely a policy goal and especially for countries (or peoples) who previously were regional powers - or empires - and would like to overturn historical defeats by regaining that status.

    Aside from Russia, I cannot think of any countries which fit that description better than Turkey and Iran.

  5. Also, I think we need to be very careful about not confusing nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

    Turkey doesn't have a choice but to accept Iran's wish to develop nuclear power, just as the West doesn't have a choice - it's every country's inalienable right. However, weaponizing that technology is an entirely different thing. There is simply no way that Turkey would be happy about seeing Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability.

    It's interesting that Turkey doesn't seem to have a consensus approach about what they would do if Iran does goes nuclear, but they may well consider following suit. Of course it's yet to be seen whether they would or not, but there is evidence to suggest that nations in that area simply do not want a nuclear armed Iran and may develop their own capability if this materialises. Surely this in itself shows that there is a degree of regional competition, as most of those states would not necessarily need to fear attack from Tehran.